Some people are thrust into the role of caregiver abruptly. After a loved one has a sudden illness, he or she may obviously need a lot of help.
But often, caregiving is a gradual process with few clear dividing lines. How do you know when you've really become a caregiver? When is it time to start taking more control over a relative's life -- and to start taking control away? And how will your new responsibilities caring for someone else affect the rest of your life?
When Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.
If you have kids, you remember the charts in the baby books that lay out the clear milestones you can expect as they grow. Unfortunately, it's not so clear-cut with caregiving for an older person. Things change slowly or rapidly. Every caregiving case is different and it's hard to know how to prepare. Still, to start you off, here are some general tips for new caregivers. They won't answer all your questions, but they may help point you in the right direction.
Begin the caregiving conversation early Ideally, you should talk to your loved ones about their care long before they really need it. For instance, adult children might want to start talking to their parents about caregiving when they reach age 70, even if they're healthy. Find out what they would like to happen if they got sick. Would they want home health care? To move in with you? To live on their own in a senior center or assisted living community? It may not be an easy conversation. It's tempting to put it off. But it's better to start talking about these issues now instead of waiting until there's a crisis.
Look for caregivers guidance. When you become a caregiver, you suddenly have a million questions. How are you supposed to take care of another adult? What should he be eating? Can she still drive? Get some answers. Check into local resources for caregivers. Some organizations -- like the Red Cross, the National Family Caregivers Association, or the local Area Agency on Aging -- may offer classes in caregiving that could be invaluable. You could also find a geriatric caseworker or geriatric care manager who can help identify your problems and resolve them.
Get caregiver support. As soon as you can, connect with other caregivers. Support groups for caregivers are a great way to exchange tips and advice. Support groups also offer a way for you to express your concerns and get backup for some of the hard decisions you'll have to make along the way. Ask at the doctor's office or at a hospital about community support groups. Or get in touch with a caregiving organization.
Find help. Don't wait until you're completely overwhelmed with caregiving to ask for help. Start talking to other family members and friends about ways that they can share in caregiving, both now and in the future. Also, look into the types of help you might be able to get at home or in local senior centers and adult day cares. While home health care can be expensive, you may find volunteer organizations that provide some relief for free.
Check out local senior care facilities and nursing homes. Even if your loved one is doing fine on her own, it's a good idea to visit local nursing homes and caregiving facilities now. Should your loved one ever need one, you’ll be glad to know what the options are. Keep in mind that many assisted living facilities and nursing homes have waiting lists and it can take years to get a spot.
Consider the legal and financial implications. Start thinking about some of the difficult legal and financial issues you may face as a caregiver. If your loved one goes into a nursing home, how will she afford it? Would you sell her house? How does power of attorney work? Does she have a will? Tackling these issues can be upsetting. But it's best to know the details so you're not taken by surprise. Talk to a geriatric care manager, a social worker, an elder law attorney, or get in touch with a caregivers' organization.
Do some research. Some helpful organizations that can provide information or assistance on caregiving include:
Administration on Aging
National Association of Agencies on Aging
Children of Aging Parents
Family Caregiver Alliance
National Alliance for Caregiving
National Family Caregivers Association
If you're new to caregiving, you may be apprehensive and worried right now. You could already feel swamped by everything you have to do. Just remember that while caregiving is tough, it has rewards, too. And with a little time and experience -- and help from others -- you'll get the hang of it.